By Lesley Wroughton and Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday played down tension with China over the East China Sea, saying U.S. efforts to strengthen maritime security in South East Asia were part of a normal process to help allies defend themselves better.
Kerry said maritime disputes between countries should be resolved peacefully through arbitration and the United States would speak out when a country, such as China, took unilateral action that raised the potential for conflict.
The United States has said it does not recognize an air defense zone imposed by Beijing amid friction with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
China is also locked in territorial rows with South East Asian nations over swathes of the South China Sea. Beijing has said it might set up a similar air defense zone there.
A day after the United States gave $32.5 million to stiffen maritime security in South East Asia, the bulk of it for Vietnam, Kerry said the United States would provide $40 million to the Philippines over three years to build its capacity to police the South China Sea.
"We don't view the situation as one of rising tensions and we don't want rising tensions," Kerry told a news conference with his Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario.
"What we are involved in are normal processes by which we work with other countries in order to raise their maritime protection capacity."
Kerry said the United States had not taken a position on any claims by countries in disputed seas but did not agree with the way China has responded in the dispute with Japan.
"We are not approaching this with any particular view towards China, except to say when China makes a unilateral move, we will state our position and make clear what we agree and disagree with," Kerry said.
Beijing's assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines - the two countries Kerry is visiting - while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to other parts of the sea, making it one of Asia's biggest potential trouble spots.
The Philippines has a $1.7-billion spending plan to upgrade military capabilities, particularly surveillance and monitoring systems on its maritime borders in the South China Sea.
Maritime security will feature prominently in Kerry's talks with President Benigno Aquino, as it did on his stop in Vietnam.
The United States has said it is not taking sides but has moved in recent weeks to defend allies against new moves by Beijing to control regional waters.
"Our hope is that the parties will come together and continue to proceed through arbitration and international law. I am confident that can ultimately resolve these kinds of questions and we have to have faith in that kind of process," Kerry said.
"The United States will stand with our friends in this region who are asserting their efforts to try to resolve this through that kind of legal peaceful process, we think that is the responsible way to proceed."
The heightened tension with China has raised concerns that a minor incident in the disputed sea could quickly escalate.
U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoided collision in the South China Sea last week, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.
On Wednesday, Kerry will travel to Tacloban in the central Philippines, the epicenter of super typhoon Haiyan, which decimated towns and villages on November 8. The storm has killed more than 6,000 people and displaced 4 million.
U.S. Marines and humanitarian groups have joined in a multi-million-dollar relief effort to deliver aid to survivors.
While the United States has said it does not intend to open new military or naval bases in the region, Kerry will discuss ways that the United States can help respond quicker during disasters.
Kerry's visit to Southeast Asia comes as the United States strives for a trade deal with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific. A Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to refocus attention on the fast-growing region.
The Philippines has expressed interest in joining the pact and Kerry said a delegation from Manila would visit Washington in January for technical talks.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams)